"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Blog Note: The Divine Comedy

I have not posted yet on my reading plans for the year, but we do know that at my Goodreads Catholic Though book club we are reading Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.  If you’ve ever wanted to read it, either make plans to read it along with me or come and join our book club here.  It doesn’t cost anything.

Now The Divine Comedy will be read as a recurring read.  A long, recurring read is one that is too long for the group to read in one straight effort, so it gets broken up into segments. After completing a segment, we move on to other reads, and then return to the next segment, and so on until completed. Since The Divine Comedy naturally breaks up into three segments called canticas, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio, I plan on a cantica for each segment. So then we will start with Inferno.

In the meantime, obtaining a book will require a decision on which translation to select. Before I get to translations, let me give you forewarning that more than likely you will have to get a separate book for each of the canticas. Most editions come with notes and facing original Italian, and so that usually means that the entire Comedia does not fit into a single binding. For the immediate future, Inferno is what you need to obtain.

So which translation? This Wikipedia page lists all the English translations that have ever been published. Good translations try to balance capturing the aesthetic of the author’s writing with precision of translation. This makes it doubly difficult for the Comedia because it is a poetic work, and the poetry is of the most sublime possible, and it incorporates a rhyme scheme that is near impossible in English for a poem of this length (longer than most novels), the terza rima. You can go with a prose translation but that would strip the sublimity out of the poem. You can go with an English attempt at the rhyme scheme or any rhyme scheme, but that would undoubtedly sacrifice precision of translation as a translator has to make many compromises to force a rhyme. What you want is a poetic translation that doesn’t care about the rhyme.

Since I’ve either partly read or completely read a few of these translations, here’s what I recommend in: (1) The Robert and Jean Hollander, (2) Anthony Esolen, or (3) Mark Musa in that order. Both the Hollander and the Esolen translations combine precision with the sublimity of the poetry. I lean toward the Hollander because it provides extensive notes, much more so than Esolen. Think of it this way: the Esolen is more for undergraduates while the Hollander might be more for graduate students. The Musa is also a fine translation, but it doesn’t capture the poeticism as well as the other two. It also has a great section of notes. You can’t go wrong with any of the three but there is an added reason to go with the Hollander. The Hollander and Hollander (husband and wife team) is also online at the Dante Project from Princeton University, here. That Princeton and the Hollanders would put up this great translation free for people to use is a real blessing, and we should provide a prayer of thanks.

More recently the Mandelbaum translation has been popular. I have not read it extensively, so I can’t speak from personal experience. My side by side quick and simple comparison with the Hollander left it lacking for me. But it has become popular.

As to a more detailed reading plan for the Inferno, let me propose the following. First some background terminology as it pertains to the work. As I mentioned above, the whole Divine Comedy – Dante only named it La comedia, the “divinia” part was added later – is divided into three sections, Inferno, Prugatorio, and Paradisio, each referred to as a “cantica.” Each cantica is divided into 33 cantos, which you can think of as chapters. The premise of the Comedia is that Dante is forced to journey through the sections of the afterlife, hell (Inferno), purgqtory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradisio). So Dante becomes a character in his own work of fiction, so you will need to keep straight Dante the writer and Dante the character. (Who says that metafiction started in the 20th century?) Dante the writer is writing from having completed the journey and gained wisdom, while we see Dante the character stumble and learn.

The one exception to the 33 cantos per cantica is Inferno, which has an additional one, an introductory canto. So 1 + 33 + 33 + 33 equals 100 Cantos. Numerology is particularly important to the construction of the Comedia, but you don’t need to pick up on the numerology to understand the work. I think of the number links as a pulling together the work into a harmony. 100 is a perfect number and 33 is the age of Christ at His death. Each canto probably averages about 150 lines, which amounts to three or four pages. Each canto is not long but it’s incredibly compact, and you will probably want to peruse the four or five pages of notes that go with each canto.

So for Inferno, we have 34 cantos and if we go with the six week maximum preference for a Catholic Thought read, that divides to six cantos per week for four weeks and five cantos per week for two weeks. So here’s what I’m proposing. This week is set aside to obtain the book. And the following will be reading schedules.

Wk 1: Jan 7 – 13, Cantos 1 thru 5
Wk 2: Jan 14 – 20, Cantos 6 thru 11
Wk 3: Jan 21 – 27, Cantos 12 thru 17
Wk 4: Jan 28 – Feb 3, Cantos 18 thru 23
Wk 5: Feb 4 – 10, Cantos 24 thru 29
Wk 6: Feb 11 – 17, Cantos 30 thru 34

This way we’ll have five cantos to read on the first and last weeks, and six for each of the four weeks in between. I’ll provide a new folder for each of the weekly group with a little summary.

This will be a great read!


  1. At the risk of advertising myself, have you considered in your Goodreads Catholic book club books that question our religious beliefs and our Christianity. For instance my books: Reflections for the Soul and More Reflections for the Soul. They ask questions like: Can we trust God? Who is the Holy Spirit? Why do things go wrong in life? etc ...

    See: https://www.amazon.com/Reflections-soul-Victor-S-Moubarak/dp/1514851210/ref=sr_1_10/135-7771773-6885462?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515604112&sr=1-10#reader_1514851210

    God bless.

    1. The way it works is that we have week of nominations and then we gather the nominations and set up a voting poll. The winner in the poll is what we read as a group. We (and I believe most book clubs on Goodreads) have a rule against promoting books, either ours or others. So I can't nominate your book.